Lib Dems silent on assisted dying, Governments Sanctions scheme questioned, Political parties must improve access, Taxis charge more for wheelchair users

Hello everyone. An interesting start to the week for me. 

On Monday I completed my time as the Chair of Disability Rights UK. I have been chair for over three years and as some of you know, before that I was chair of RADAR. Ten years is long enough and it’s now time for new people to take up the reins. Asif Hussein is taking over as Chair and I know that he will continue to grow and develop the organisation, which plays such a vital role in campaigning for the rights of disabled people. I shall miss everyone at DRUK, it has been a real privilege working alongside some extraordinarily dedicated, hard working and loyal people.

On a totally different subject my wife is off to India for two weeks. She’s going with a group of people who will be touring and singing in and around Kerala and she’s bound to have a great time.

I haven’t had to live on my own for thirty eight years so this is going to be an interesting experience. All the domestic chores will be down to me, no more pampering. My kids have wisely bought inaccessible houses so no chance of disabled dad moving in for a couple of weeks. Offers of Sunday lunch would be nice though!

I’ll let you know how I get on! Anyone take in washing?

Finally just to let you know that an audiobook version of our book “Why are you pretending to be normal?” is now available from Amazon. It is read by Dave Rees and it has music and lyrics written by Steve Hillman, Dave Rees and me. Hope you you enjoy it. Click this link to download a copy.

Have a great week.

News Roundup

Lib Dems silent on assisted dying bill, despite goal of ‘zero suicide NHS’

The Liberal Democrats have refused to say whether setting a new “ambition” for “zero suicides” in the NHS would be compatible with proposed laws that would legalise assisted suicide.

Nick Clegg, the party leader and deputy prime minister, said at this week’s launch of the new policy: “This isn’t about blame. It is doing more in every area of our society to ensure that people don’t get to that point where they believe taking their own life is their only option.”

Clegg’s call for all NHS trusts to commit to a new ambition for zero suicides in the health service came only three days after peers continued the committee stage of the Labour peer Lord Falconer’s assisted dying bill in the House of Lords.

The assisted dying bill would make it legal for doctors to help end the lives of those they judged to be terminally-ill, if the individual requested such help.

Disabled activists campaigning against legalisation, from Not Dead Yet UK (NDY UK), say the new Liberal Democrat policy shows the party is guilty of hypocrisy for not speaking out against attempts to legalise suicide for those who have life-limiting conditions, while now calling for more to be done to prevent suicides among those with mental health conditions.

The disabled crossbench peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell, a leading member of NDY UK, told fellow peers during the debate that the coalition’s existing cross-departmental suicide prevention strategy defines suicide as “a deliberate act that intentionally ends one’s life”.

She said: “In the light of this definition, will the minister inform us whether, if the bill were to become law, he anticipates a rise in the suicide rate, and would he expect the suicide prevention strategy to contain measures to reduce the numbers in this group intentionally ending their own lives?”

Lord Faulks, the Conservative justice minister, told peers in response: “I should tell the committee that we have collected no evidence about the effects this bill could have on suicide rates, were it to be enacted, but nothing about the bill in any way compromises the cross-department suicide prevention strategy.”

Although there is not enough parliamentary time for the bill to become law before May, it is almost certain that Lord Falconer, or another parliamentarian, will reintroduce it after the general election.

Baroness Campbell also told peers that “not a single organisation of disabled or terminally ill people is actively campaigning for this legislation”, while “growing numbers of national charities are coming out to campaign against it”.

And she warned fellow peers that others were not as fortunate as she had been “in the medical care that they receive, in the support that they get from their families and in the social care available to them to help them live with serious illness and disability”.

She said: “We need to remember that, especially now, when economic austerity has diminished the quality of care and support that one can expect…

“Many seriously ill people’s experience of life is not about exercising autonomous control; it is more about being done to than doing. The bill has all the makings of a law for the strong at the expense of the weak.”

But the disabled crossbench peer Lord Low, who supports legalisation, said he believed that Baroness Campbell’s fears that the bill would allow disability to be “equated with terminal illness and that [disabled people] will be made the subject of ‘do not resuscitate’ notices” was “misplaced” and “misconceived”.

He said that a disabled person would have to ask “before they can be offered the facilities of this bill to end their life”, and would “need to make an act of conscious choice before they avail themselves of these facilities”.

He said: “With all the safeguards in the bill, it will actually make the situation of disabled people better.”

And he said that a YouGov poll found that four in five disabled people “support assisted dying for adults of sound mind with a terminal illness”.

But Baroness Campbell reminded peers that activists from NDY UK UK – at least six of whom were terminally-ill – were outside parliament in the “freezing cold” to protest about the bill.

She added: “With the greatest respect, many people who are campaigning for this measure have not experienced these issues.

“They are people in control of their lives. They are people who fear becoming what they see us as.

“So I ask, please, that disabled people should be very much a central part of this debate.”

The Liberal Democrats have so far failed to explain how their “zero NHS suicides” target would be compatible with the assisted dying bill, if it ever became law.

A Liberal Democrat spokesman said the new zero suicides target was “about doing more in every area of our society to ensure that people don’t get to that point where they believe taking their own life is their only option”.

He added: “Separately, Liberal Democrats believe that there should be a free vote held in parliament on the issue of assisted dying, where parliamentarians have the opportunity to vote in line with their own views on this issue.“

But the party has so far refused to say whether its new target suggests that only some lives are worth saving, and if the target would be incompatible with an assisted dying bill.
Evidence mounts in case against government’s sanctions regime

Disturbing fresh evidence emerged this week that the government’s strict sanctions regime is harming the health and wellbeing of many out-of-work sick and disabled people.

A series of media reports and research publications, as well as an evidence session before MPs, highlighted the pressure imposed on civil servants to refer claimants – many of whom are disabled – to have their benefits stopped temporarily.

It follows reports by Disability News Service on concerns that Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) staff are failing to take the correct precautions when “vulnerable” people are about to have their benefits sanctioned.

DNS has also revealed that DWP has carried out 60 secret reviews into benefit-related deaths since February 2012.

Although coalition ministers have consistently denied any connection between their welfare reforms and cuts and the deaths of benefit claimants, there have been numerous reports of disabled people whose deaths have been linked to the social security system, including DWP’s use of sanctions to temporarily remove benefits from claimants.

On Wednesday, nine experts gave evidence to the Commons work and pensions select committee for its inquiry into benefit sanctions policy, which is particularly looking at how the Welfare Reform Act 2012 strengthened the sanctions regimes for both jobseekers allowance and employment and support allowance (ESA).

Alison Garnham, chief executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, read an extract from a guide for DWP decision-makers (DMs), which revealed that “it is assumed that health would be harmed by a sanction”.

The guide says: “It would be usual for a normal healthy adult to suffer some deterioration in their health if they were without essential items such as food, clothing, heating and accommodation, or sufficient money to buy sufficient items, for a period of two weeks.

“The DM must determine if a person with a medical condition would suffer a greater decline in health than a normal healthy adult and would suffer hardship.”

Dr Kayleigh Garthwaite, a research associate at Durham University, had submitted a written statement to the committee describing the effects of sanctions on people in Stockton-on-Tees who were already in poor health, particularly those with mental health conditions.

She described one woman, who was 22 weeks pregnant and had walked more than two miles to a food bank because she couldn’t afford to take a bus.

She was receiving ESA because of a mental health condition triggered by giving birth to a stillborn child, but was sanctioned after missing a single jobcentre appointment, despite letting her adviser know she would not be able to make the appointment.

Garthwaite described how the sanction worsened the woman’s mental health, and increased her debts.

At one stage she had not eaten a proper cooked meal in more than two weeks and was living on leftovers from meals eaten by her sister’s children.

She could not afford electricity and so her fridge and cooker had not been switched on for three weeks, and she had sold her television because she could not afford to use it.

Garthwaite described another woman, who had digestive and mental health problems, and was sanctioned after missing a jobcentre appointment, and told her: “Because of the anaemia, my energy levels are so low I nod off regularly, and towards the afternoon I don’t have energy to do the housework.

“I’m not unintelligent, I know what I need to keep my levels going, I know what I need for my diet, but it’s hard to keep that going when you’re left eating just bread with chocolate spread on it and that’s all you’ve got for the day.”

Mark Serwotka, general secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union, told the committee that the union’s survey of Jobcentre Plus advisers and decision-makers found 70 per cent did not think sanctioning helped claimants find work, while three in five (61 per cent) felt there was pressure on them to refer claimants for sanctions.

Meanwhile, an investigation into the government’s benefit sanctions regime by BBC Radio 4’s File on Four interviewed a Jobcentre Plus whistleblower, who said: “Every opportunity with a customer was an opportunity to sanction.

“We were encouraged to view the customer as the lowest of the low. It didn’t matter what they’d done. The fact that they were claiming benefit meant they were up for some special treatment.”

He said staff were encouraged to target all claimants and “set them up to fail, make life difficult for them”.

DWP told File on Four that it had investigated and found no evidence to back up his allegations.

File on Four also reported new data obtained by researchers for the Methodist Church, using Freedom of Information Act requests to DWP, which found that ESA claimants judged not fit for work because of mental health conditions were more likely to have their benefits stopped by sanctions than those with other impairments.

In March 2014, according to the figures, about 4,500 ESA claimants with mental health conditions were sanctioned.
Political parties ‘must act’ on accessible offices

Every political party should ensure that its MPs only rent constituency offices that are fully accessible to disabled people, campaigners have demanded.

They spoke out after a series of Disability News Service reports that revealed three ministers with equalities responsibilities – Mark Harper, Jo Swinson and Iain Duncan Smith – have inaccessible constituency offices.

Deborah King, co-founder of Disability Politics UK, which campaigns to address the under-representation of disabled people in public and political life, said: “Physical access to MPs’ constituency offices is vital if we are to get more disabled people into politics.

“It is not good enough to say, ‘We hold surgeries at accessible locations.’

“Disabled people have the right to participate as volunteers as part of a progression towards paid work in politics. Disabled people have a right of access to politics.

“All party leaders need to make a commitment to getting their MPs’ constituency offices accessible as soon as possible.”

Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said: “MPs not having accessible constituency offices not only prevents disabled people exercising their access to democratic processes but excludes them from the opportunity of gaining the skills from employment that are needed to lead onto a political career.

“It is therefore essential, if politicians are serious about more disabled people becoming engaged in politics, that MPs must not only have an accessible constituency office but one where disabled people could also work as well.

“If necessary, the extra expenses MPs need to cover any extra costs for this should be provided and MPs who do not have accessible offices should be financially penalised until they move to accessible premises.”

Meanwhile, Labour MEP Richard Howitt, co-president of the European Parliament’s all-party disability rights group, added his voice to calls for parties to take action to ensure their MPs’ constituency offices were accessible.

He said: “People in public office have a duty to lead by example and ministers with responsibilities for disabled people are clearly failing in their duty in even the most rudimentary terms to ensure full access.

“They should be providing moral leadership and doing what is right, and to put up barriers to disabled people is absolutely wrong.

“I would appeal to all new MPs elected in May when they first decide where to establish their constituency offices, to first choose accessible offices.”

Although he said access in his own constituency office was not perfect, he said he had made “painstaking arrangements” to improve it, which has meant he has been able to employ a blind person and someone with a physical impairment.

He said: “If I can do it, I hope others can do it as well.”

But he admitted that his office was not fully accessible. Although there is a ground-floor area where staff can come downstairs to see wheelchair-users or others with mobility impairments, most of the office space was up a flight of stairs.

He added: “Am I frustrated and impatient about lack of progress and change? Yes.

“That is why I am campaigning vociferously for access laws to speed up the change.”

Howitt and the all-party group are pushing the European Commission to publish a long-awaited draft European accessibility act.

Such an act would complement Britain’s Equality Act by making existing voluntary European access standards mandatory across the European Union.

Howitt said: “Although I am proud of the progress we have made in forging European access rules in relation to the installation of lifts, for some public transport and on the internet, the bitter truth is that the large swathe of the built environment remains a ‘no go’ area to disabled people.”
Taxis ‘are discriminating’ by charging higher fees to wheelchair-users

Many taxis are breaching equality laws by charging wheelchair-users extra to use their services, say disabled campaigners.

People First Keighley and Craven (PFKC) is campaigning for private hire vehicles in the Bradford area to stick to the law.

PFKC members say that Hackney carriages cannot overcharge, but many private hire vehicles do, and they say this must stop.

They have already forced taxi companies that were charging wheelchair-users double the normal rate to cut this to one-and-a-half times the usual fee, but they say this is still not good enough.

Private hire firms were warned two years ago – following a PFKC campaign – that they risked prosecution if they carried on overcharging.

But Tom Walsh, a campaign worker for PFKC and himself a wheelchair-user, said the overcharging is continuing and is widespread in the Bradford area.

He said he was “annoyed” about this, and added: “They can charge what they want. They set their own prices.

“I just felt a bit ripped off. Especially when I did mystery shopping and found out from some people I was using that they were charging me double. I felt discriminated against.

“It’s not just me – it’s everyone in wheelchairs. When I have mentioned it to other wheelchair-users they didn’t even know they were being overcharged.”

Geoff Binnington, principal officer for Bradford council’s fleet and transport services, said: “We have heard about some operators allegedly using discriminatory fares, but have seen no evidence to support this.

“We work closely with both disability groups and operators to ensure both are aware that fares should not discriminate.”

He said the council had commissioned a report to examine the issue of overcharging, but he added: “We have no legal control over fares set by private hire operators – this is something they themselves decide.

“We would also advise people to always agree a fare before a journey commences.”

But he said that private hire companies – including drivers and employees – have to abide by the council’s own public sector equality duty, under the Equality Act.

This means the council has to have “due regard” to eliminating unlawful discrimination, harassment or victimisation; advancing equality of opportunity; and fostering good relations between groups such as disabled people, minority ethnic communities, older people, and those who do not share such “protected characteristics”.

Stuart Hastings, chair of Keighley Private Hire Association and boss of Metro Keighley Taxis, said his company kept strictly to the law and did not charge wheelchair-users extra.

But he said that his company’s wheelchair-accessible minivans have electric tail lifts, which meant they were much more expensive than standard private hire vehicles, while he claimed that it often took twice as long to complete a job if the passenger was a wheelchair-user.

Hastings said: “The law says you cannot charge anything extra for someone in a wheelchair.

“There is right and wrong, and then there is the law, and the law says we cannot do that, so we don’t. Some other companies do.”

News provided by John Pring at

Author: PhilFriend

Dr Phil Friend (OBE FRSA) himself a wheelchair user, is acknowledged as the UK's foremost consultant on disability matters. A powerful and highly popular communicator, his company – Phil & Friends – has provided consultancy to many of the country's best-known companies. In addition to his professional activities, he is also a respected champion for equal opportunities and diversity in general, where his special blend of humour and direct speaking has won admirers from around the world.

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